September 3, 2015 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

How do companies defend their assets against cybercriminals? Standard practice is to leverage traditional firewall technology and to build out behavior-based techniques to catch bad guys in the act. But as recent retail, financial and more “intimate” site breaches demonstrate, this avenue of defense isn’t always effective. According to Bloomberg, companies like Barclays are now trying a new tactic: self-hacking. Can security professionals acting like criminals really help enterprises stay one step ahead?

Hacking in Self-Defense

The practice of testing internal defenses by taking on the mentality of malicious hackers has been around for a few years. As noted by ComputerWeekly, carmaker Daimler brought on a team of hackers to test its systems and find real-world vulnerabilities that could then be patched.

Barclays is taking things a step further thanks to its new CISO Troels Oerting, a law enforcement veteran with 35 years in the business and the former head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Center, who plans to build in-house teams that “operate and think like cybercriminals.” For Barclays, that means boosting security spending by 20 percent to fund their so-called red team, which carries out simulated attacks on the bank.

It all starts with internal evaluation of security systems and protocols to uncover weak spots. Next, this data is passed to red team, which carries out a series of attacks and forces IT security to respond on the fly.

Barclays isn’t alone in the quest to find security holes before attackers do. Cyber risk is now viewed as a key concern by nearly one-third of all U.K. banks, up from a measly 1 percent just two years ago. According to James Chappell of cybersecurity firm Digital Shadows, this recognition of risk comes with a shift in priorities. Instead of trying to keep attackers out, “banks accept that breaches are going to happen and, rather than reinforcing the perimeter security, they’re making sure data stolen won’t be usable.”

Sleight of Hand

Of course, self-hacking isn’t the only form of protection available to enterprises. As noted by Tech Target, automated deception services are also gaining ground. These are essentially more advanced honeypot techniques that use emulated operating systems to identify attackers and slow their efforts. For Charles Henderson of Trustwave Holdings, however, these techniques are a double-edged sword; as they become more popular, fewer criminals are fooled, and the time from initial contact to full-on breach shortens.

So what’s the answer? Is there any way for companies to stay completely safe? The short answer is no. The better answer is that a combination of self-hacking, traditional defenses and evolved alternatives like automated honeypots collectively form a kind of mesh-based IT defense, one where criminals encounter a new layer of difficulty at each stage of their attack, eventually frustrating them to the point of capitulation. Simply put, thinking like criminals offers significant gains for companies: Make hacking hard, and they’ll simply walk away.

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